Festival of Hope in Tblisi, Georgia Attracts 15,000 Despite Arson, Protests, Threats
Organizers forced to find new location days before event started
The intense work started months before Franklin Graham and his crew arrived in Tblisi, Georgia.
The Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) was accustomed to holding festivals in countries where choirs and musicians are readily available in the church.
That was not the case in this former Soviet state along the Black Sea. The BGEA wanted 500 choir members to fill its June 6—8, 2014 Festival of Hope with worship and praise music.
Georgia had 25.
Unlike in a lot of western countries, where a talented worship band can fill an arena for a festival, in Eastern Europe, a large choir is deemed necessary to validate an event in the eyes of the people. The performance of a choir sends the message that the event is one of high culture, which influences people to listen and opens the door for evangelism to occur.
MIWC answered the BGEA's request to coordinate a choir and orchestra starting last year. Since there were no local choir directors in Georgia, the MIWC Ukraine team was invited to started leading the way.
First, all of the music had to be translated into the Georgian language.
MIWC reported several updates from associate Serhiy Bilokin as he worked tirelessly on translating, then recruiting and training hundreds of musicians.
During the winter and spring recruiting and training process, 70 Ukrainians left their families in the midst of the violence that had started with Russia to travel to Tblisi to begin training people for the choir.
Along the way, other pieces started to come together.
Using his connection as a professor at Duquesne University, MIWC President Stephen Benham met with administrators from the Tblisi State Conservatory and began an affiliation between the two schools. The relationships he made there led to offers of student musicians, equipment and rehearsal space from the conservatory.
Benham said Proverbs 16:9 was the story of the trip: The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps (ESV).
Rehearsals began the first day Benham and his wife, Kris, arrived in Tblisi May 12. Many of the 450 choir members traveled four hours by bus to make each rehearsal.
After a 17-day break to lead a music ministry trip for a group from the University of Northwestern St. Paul in the Czech Republic and Hungary, the Benhams returned to Tblisi June 2 only to hear an arson was reported at the city's Sports Palace. The Sports Palace was scheduled to host the Festival of Hope in four days.
As BGEA organizers prayed ceaselessly about their options, protestors gathered in the city, with signs calling Franklin Graham an apostate.
Backlash from Georgia's mainline Orthodox Church grew stronger as several musicians heard from their local priests individually. Some orchestra members received a cell phone call from their priest, who threatened their entire families with excommunication if they played in the festival.
While the musicians initially left rehearsal, they soon returned and told Benham, "We know you and we know you are not what they say you are."
Finally, as time was running out and venue after venue would approve the BGEA's request only to rescind it hours later following a phone call from the Orthodox church, the BGEA located the courtyard of a city church to use.
At first, it was not apparent how they were going to fit everyone in.
The 450-member choir was positioned in one corner, with the orchestra squeezed in next to it.
The stage where acts like Michael W. Smith and Huntley Brown would perform overlooked a grassy area where thousands of Georgians crowded in, standing room only.
The podium where Franklin Graham was perched did not allow for the ministry's usual altar call routine, but that did not stop the evangelism team.
When Graham would ask those who wished to accept Christ to raise their hands, festival counselors instead came to them, to pray at their sides.
For each of the three days of the festival, the weather forecast called for a zero percent chance of rain.
Yet each afternoon, just before the start of the sound check, intense storm clouds would gather right over the church. Rain would start, but then quickly stop.
Benham said it is no exaggeration to say it felt like Satan was threatening everything they were doing.
"There would be lightning without any thunder," he said, "and then, just as worship would start, the clouds would blow away, leaving a clear sky just over the church. There would be dark clouds and lightning all around the church, but there seemed to be a spiritual umbrella right over where we were. I'd never seen anything like it."
During the performance of his Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") song with the choir, Michael W. Smith was brought to tears by the sound of his lyrics coming forth in the Georgian language for the very first time.
Agnus Dei became almost a theme song for the three-night event, bringing the entire crowd to their feet on the last night, in awe of their incredible God and finally being able to sing praises to him in their own language.
"After all the opposition, it was a sign God can't be stopped," said Kris Benham.
The prominent Christian musical acts such as Smith, Huntley Brown and the Tommy Coomes Band bonded with the Georgian and Ukrainian choir and orchestra members not just during their performances, but off stage as well.
When the professional musicians heard about the hardships facing the Ukrainian musicians, they emptied their pockets of all of their cash and gave it to Ukrainians. The Ukrainians, who each spent $400 (two months average salary) to come to Tblisi, held a prayer meeting to discuss how best to use the gift among them.
The week of rehearsals and performances would not have been possible without the joint efforts of hundreds of people.
It was a privilege for MIWC associates to share it with friends from Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Jamaica and the United States.
MIWC's supporters helped lay the groundwork for much of the local music ministry portions of the festival program.
MIWC is humbled, honored and thrilled to have been a small part of seeing so many come to Christ through the Tblisi Festival of Hope.
Read more from the BGEA. Some photos credit BGEA.